Advanced nanostructures invented by Yu-Guo Guo could lead to electric-car batteries that deliver more power at 10 percent less cost. That’s significant because battery packs account for a great deal of the cost of electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf. A car with a big battery pack is too expensive for most people, but models that keep costs down with a smaller battery pack can’t go very far on a charge.
For Guo, a professor of chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the crucial innovation was a better way to use lithium iron phosphate. Automakers like the material because its stable chemistry makes it safe for use in large electric-vehicle battery packs. But ordinarily, it is not conductive enough to be useful. Some manufacturers have tried milling the phosphate into an extremely fine powder that’s more conductive but difficult to work with. Guo’s solution was to incorporate phosphate nanoparticles into larger particles made of porous carbon. These particles retain the high conductivity of the powder, but they are easier to pack closely and less likely to become airborne.
Late last year Guo founded a company, Wuhe, that will produce enough material for 30 million lithium-ion battery cells this year–enough for roughly 5,000 car battery packs. The cells are currently being sold for use in electric bicycles and being tested for use in electric cars. —Kevin Bullis